June 19, 2008

America, Sunny Side Up

This article originally appeared in The Indian Express on June 19, 2008.

Acres of news space in the United States have been devoted to lamenting America’s falling reputation. Americans want desperately to be loved. But the country’s popularity has been steadily decreasing for the better part of this decade, particularly in Europe and Southwest Asia. Moreover, there are indications that blame for a future global economic slowdown may be pinned on its economic policies.

Most Americans believe that the next US president will mark a decisive shift for the better for the US’s worldwide popularity, especially if Democratic candidate Barack Obama is elected in November. Indians, however, appear unconvinced. The Chinese, Pakistanis, Arabs, Turks, and Mexicans are among those who seemingly share India’s wariness concerning Obama’s slogan of ‘Change’.

The latest Pew Global Attitudes survey report, released on June 12, measures attitudes on a wide spectrum of issues in 24 countries. The findings on India, particularly with regard to US policies and politics, are incisive. The sample size for India is small (2,056) and those polled are overwhelmingly urban, yet the consistency of the survey’s findings in India over the past years reinforces its value, as does the increased breadth of those polled in India. Additionally, Indians’ positions on issues can be accurately compared to the Chinese, Pakistanis and Brazilians, who were all represented disproportionately by urban residents in this survey.

After the US, India has the narrowest difference between those who have confidence in Barack Obama as US president and those who have confidence in John McCain, with Obama leading 33 to 28 per cent. Both, however, lag behind the incumbent president George W. Bush, whose confidence rating among Indians is still astonishingly high at 55 per cent. Indians are also the only people who rate Bush higher than Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Obama, meanwhile, fares worse only in Mexico and in four Muslim countries: Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan. After Poland and some Muslim countries, India has the largest percentage of people who think the US polls will bring a change for the worse in terms of US foreign policy (21 per cent).

What does this indicate about Indian attitudes towards the upcoming US elections? Indians are among the most suspicious of change brought about by either a McCain or Obama presidency. Basically, current American policies relevant to India are seen as overwhelmingly positive.

This is buttressed by some of the survey’s other findings. Indians have a 66 per cent favourability rating of the US, behind only South Korea and Poland among the countries polled. More significantly, India is also one of only four countries where people have higher approval ratings of the US than of Americans (the others are Nigeria, China and Mexico).

The predominant causes for this goodwill appear to be the potential benefits of economic and commercial cooperation with the US and an appreciation of the American-led global economic order. At 41 per cent, Indians are by far the most positive about US economic influence. India is also the second most pro-trade country, with 90 per cent of people saying it is good (behind only Nigeria). And at 87 per cent, Indians are the most optimistic of any people on the personal benefits of trade. More surprisingly, Indians are by some margin the most good-willed towards foreigners buying domestic companies (59 per cent).

To a lesser degree, Indian goodwill towards the US is reinforced by relative agreement with the current American leadership on political issues. Other than African states, Mexico and some formal US allies, India has the largest percentage of people who consider the US a partner (40 per cent). Indians are more accepting of a partnership with the US than many of its formal allies, including Spain, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan and Argentina. Surprisingly, given the anti-American rhetoric of the Indian chattering classes, more urban Indians think US influence in their country is beneficial (34 per cent), than those who perceive it as detrimental (25 per cent). Other than Nigeria, India is also the only country where the majority of those polled believe US efforts in Iraq will succeed.

Indians, therefore, appear unfamiliar with the major US presidential candidates and undecided about whom to support. What they do know is that the current US leadership’s policies — political but especially economic — have been beneficial to India. They’re uncertain whether a John McCain presidency will continue where Bush leaves off. But they also appear concerned that Obama’s message of ‘Change’ — music to the ears of so many Americans — may not necessarily mean a change for the better.